ZWITINA, Libya — Coalition forces bombarded Libya for a third straight night Monday, targeting the air defenses and forces of Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, stopping his advances and handing some momentum back to the rebels, who were on the verge of defeat just last week.
But the rebellion's more organized military units were still not ready, and the opposition disarray underscored U.S. warnings that a long stalemate could emerge.
The air campaign by U.S. and European militaries has unquestionably rearranged the map in Libya and rescued rebels from the immediate threat they faced only days ago of being crushed under a powerful advance by Gadhafi's forces. The first round of airstrikes smashed a column of regime tanks that had been moving on the rebel capital of Benghazi in the east.
Monday night, Libyan state TV said a new round of strikes had begun in the capital, Tripoli, marking the third night of bombardment. But while the airstrikes can stop Gadhafi's troops from attacking rebel cities — in line with the U.N. mandate to protect civilians — the United States, at least, appeared deeply reluctant to go beyond that toward actively helping the rebel cause to oust the Libyan leader.
President Barack Obama said Monday that "it is U.S. policy that Gadhafi has to go." But, he said, the international air campaign has a more limited goal, to protect civilians.
"Our military action is in support of an international mandate from the Security Council that specifically focuses on the humanitarian threat posed by Col. Gadhafi to his people," the president said on a visit to Chile.
In Washington, the American general running the assault said there is no attempt to provide air cover for rebel operations. Gen. Carter Ham said Gadhafi might cling to power once the bombardment finishes, setting up a stalemate between his side and the rebels, with allied nations enforcing a no-fly zone to ensure he cannot attack civilians.
Among the rebels, as well, there was a realization that fighting could be drawn out. Mohammed Abdul-Mullah, a 38-year-old civil engineer from Benghazi who was fighting with the rebel force, said government troops stopped all resistance after the international campaign began.
"The balance has changed a lot," he said. "But pro-Gadhafi forces are still strong. They are a professional military and they have good equipment. Ninety percent of us rebels are civilians, while Gadhafi's people are professional fighters."
Disorganization among the rebels could also hamper their attempts to exploit the turn of events. Since the uprising began, the opposition has been made up of disparate groups even as it took control of the entire east.
Regular citizens — residents of the "liberated" areas — took up arms and formed a ragtag, highly enthusiastic but highly undisciplined force that in the past weeks has charged ahead to fight Gadhafi forces, only to be beaten back by superior firepower. Regular army units that joined the rebellion have proven stronger, more organized fighters, but only a few units have joined the battles while many have stayed behind as officers struggle to get together often antiquated, limited equipment and form a coordinated force.
But as NATO members met Monday in Brussels to try to work out a common position that would allow the organization to participate in the no-fly zone there seemed to be confusion about who exactly would carry the operation forward. NATO approved on Sunday plans to help enforce a United Nations arms embargo against Libya, but so far it has not been able to agree on how to proceed on either that or the no-fly zone. Discord also plagued the coalition. The United States was eager to pass leadership off, but the allies were deeply divided on the issue. Turkey was adamantly against NATO taking charge, while Italy hinted Monday it would stop allowing use of its airfields if the veteran alliance is not given the leadership. Germany and Russia also criticized the way the mission is being carried out.
Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said that responsibility for the no-fly zone would be transferred to NATO. But France raised objections to that, with its foreign minister, Alain Juppé, saying in Brussels on Monday that "the Arab League does not wish the operation to be entirely placed under NATO responsibility. It isn't NATO which has taken the initiative up to now."
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.